Davis challenges FTI's value

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) wants the Transportation Department to prove the value of continuing work on a troubled Federal Aviation Administration telecommunications program and address safety concerns associated with the project.

FAA employees were relieved that government officials are finally raising their voices about a system that affects how air traffic controllers and pilots communicate.

A May 25 letter from Davis, the Government Reform Committee’s chairman, to DOT Secretary Norman Mineta questions the program’s safety, marking the first time the government has raised the issue about the FAA Telecommunications Infrastructure (FTI) program. Davis expressed alarm about an April DOT inspector general report recommending that the FAA reconsider pursuing the program.

“I am sure you will agree that any outage in the air traffic control system poses potentially dire safety risks,” Davis wrote. “Based on the discussion of the O’Hare outage and the other findings in the [IG] report, I am concerned about the reliability, security and safety of the FTI system as it is presently being implemented.” Last fall, a radar outage at Chicago O’Hare International Airport occurred during a switchover to FTI.

The April report states that the FTI program is behind schedule and is not fulfilling expectations. The IG advised the FAA’s program office to develop a new schedule for the FTI program and reduce risks to air traffic control.

Starting this week, a new IG assessment will evaluate the FAA’s progress in drafting a new program schedule, cost/benefit analysis and transition plan. The audit will also check to ensure that the project is not interfering with air traffic control safety.

The IG is acting now because the FAA told auditors that it would complete many of the recommended fixes by June 30, IG spokesman David Barnes said last week.

FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said DOT and the FAA have always tested FTI services before deploying them to mitigate risks. Early in the program, an independent assessment was conducted to determine that the FTI system’s services were safe.

FAA employees are applauding the attention being paid to what they view as a looming threat to aviation safety.

Doug Fralick, director of safety and technology for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said association members have worried from the beginning about the lack of a backup system. If an airport loses radar or radio communications during the transition from an older system to FTI, “you are going to be a lot closer to your neighbors in the sky than you want to be,” he said.

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